Savages guitarist Gemma Thompson plays a 1966 Fender Duo-Sonic II. “It’s a very simple guitar, but you can throw it around—you can do anything to it—and it’s very light. I know exactly when it’s going to start feeding back, at what point, what exact sound, and it’s a very intuitive instrument.” Photo by TIM
The word “savage” has many meanings. It could refer to an untamed animal, a fierce human with a wild or uncivilized demeanor, or perhaps it could be used to describe something turbulent and unforgiving. The Savages embody all of these things through the bleeding, raw, primal unadulterated power of their loud, in-your-face music.
But extreme volume and guttural riffage are only part of the story. Savages revel in contrasts. At their core, the band feeds off dynamics, drama, melody, and careful songwriting. Their music is challenging, but it isn’t difficult listening. And therein lies their appeal—in a touch of irony, they’re charged beasts who have civilized things to say about life’s finer mysteries and disturbances, through a confrontational approach.
The group’s 6-string noisemaster is Gemma Thompson, whose playing is an aural assault—unbridled, uninhibited, and drenched in fuzz and tasteful delays. She layers colors and textures, and flirts with sonic abandon. But she never slips into chaos—at least not unintentionally. Prior to Savages, Thompson was the guitarist for John and Jehn—Savages vocalist Jehnny Beth’s duo with (Savages producer) Johnny Hostile—when they decided to change gears. The band’s lineup took shape in early 2012 with the addition of drummer Fay Milton and bassist Ayşe Hassan. Thompson and Hassan had worked together before as well, which was helpful. “We’ve been playing together for about seven years or so,” Thompson says of Hassan. “The way I play and the way she plays have always been very much together. It’s echoed in how we’ve learned and how we’ve grown with our instruments.”
When Savages released their first album, Silence Yourself (2013), the alternative music world went bananas. The band’s ferocity and intense live performances—not to mention the mojo Thompson conjured up via her vintage Duo-Sonic, stompboxes, and assorted amps—landed them spots at myriad festivals and a lengthy world tour.
Post-tour, in early 2015, Savages went to New York for a three-week residency. They brought ideas, riffs, concepts, and song fragments, but no completed material. The music was fleshed out and completed live, in front of intimate audiences at NYC clubs. Savages played their new material each night, reshaped and rehearsed the songs the next day, and then test-drove the reincarnations during the next gig before a different audience. The result is Adore Life, their sophomore release featuring a mature yet-still-growing band, tight songwriting, and a varied palette of fat tones and feedback.
Premier Guitar spoke with Thompson about her unusual start as a guitarist, the band’s unique songwriting process, her trademark 1966 Fender Duo-Sonic II, the crank-ability of vintage Gibson hollowbodies, effects verses amps, and how you sometimes just need to hold a TV remote control over your pickups.
When did you start playing the guitar?
I was living in a house full of musicians—instruments everywhere—and I was studying fine arts. My friends were all musicians and I would follow them out, take photographs of them, and paint their backdrops for them. I was trying to make a soundtrack for a performance thing I was working on. I borrowed some instruments and started making noises, basically, until one of my musician friends said, “Please, would you join my band as a noise guitarist?” And I did. I eventually started learning a bit more melody and rhythm, with the noise.
That is an unorthodox introduction to guitar playing.
I didn’t exactly start from a technical point of view. I literally would see how much noise I could get out of the instrument. I originally started playing a friend’s Strat. I did a lot of dive-bombing with a Big Muff pedal and just tried to make as much noise as feasible.
When did you start learning how to play chords and leads?
I tried to dive right into the more complicated things—like learning Radiohead parts and things like that. I tried to find the hardest things I could find, sit for six hours, and try to learn a very tiny thing. I got pretty good at sitting there for six hours just trying to learn one tiny detail.
One of the first things I really wanted to play was the line from the Birthday Party song, “Happy Birthday.” I was trying to learn how to play Rowland S. Howard’s guitar line by listening—I think it is in 3/4 or something, very odd little line. I couldn’t get the same energy or intensity or the way he was playing it. I realized then that to play like him, you had to go through everything he went through and be him. It occurred to me that you have to become your own person to have your own sound, to go through everything to get to that point. That kind of guitar playing you couldn’t just mimic and learn; you had to be that person to play it. That inspired me a lot to try and find my own thing. Rowland S. Howard has always been a big hero of mine.
Do you write together as a band or do you show up to rehearsal with material you’re working on?
It’s a very collaborative thing. Jehnny writes all the lyrics and she always has a notebook with her—she’s always writing all the time. When we come together to write, we do some instrumental rehearsals where the three of us just play and play and play. I always record everything, every rehearsal. We record everything and we go through it. Sometimes the four of us will be in a room together and we’ll be discussing lyrics and the sounds representing the lyrics. On this record, Adore Life, we introduced more melody. The vocal melody and the guitar melody—their voices together are very important and very considered. But it’s all written very collaboratively—each to their own instruments—but very collaboratively.
So anything could serve as a starting point.
Yeah, that’s the thing. I go through each song and think, “This drum idea is a starting point, or this word here with this sound here is the starting point, or Ayşe’s bass line here is the whole idea of a song.” Take a song like “Surrender,” for instance. Ayşe had the idea of the sound on bass—this really mean but beautiful melodic thing—a sustained, fuzz bass sound. She said, “I want to play with this idea.” So everything grew around that idea. Or “The Answer.” It comes from that guitar riff. You don’t know where the drums begin and end—everything is circular and full on.
That riff is righteous.
[Laughs] Thanks. It was very interesting. For this record we did a three-week residency in New York in January . We played nine club shows in three different clubs and we had a rehearsal studio at the same time. The idea was that instead of writing the new songs and recording straight away, we took these rough new songs and tried to play as many as possible with the intention of writing in front of the audience, with the audience. For a lot of the songs, the adrenaline of doing that really finished writing them in a way.
When we first tried playing “The Answer” live as a very rough idea, sonically it was quite tricky to get our heads around. You have to almost not rely on the sound. You have to rely on knowing the song physically and mentally. You just watch each other and know the movements, because the sound was very hard in those small clubs to precisely know what was going on. It became a bit of a sonic challenge to work out how we were going to play this intensity live—to know exactly where we were and be very precise.